“We are human beings who live here,” Silvia Hernández says emphatically.
She is speaking of Los Angeles’s notorious Skid Row, though she no longer lives there herself. Hernández doesn’t look back fondly on the year she spent nights alternating between streets and shelters, but she appreciates what she believes is a strong sense of community among neighborhood residents. “Now with this new idea of gentrification, they want to take it away,” she says of the business interests and developers remaking downtown, and the police and security officers who are doing their bidding. “They don’t recognize the community as a community.”
Skid Row is the epicenter of LA’s chronic homelessness crisis, and its residents are under siege. Stretching some thirty to fifty square blocks, the neighborhood was established in the 1970s by city power brokers as an area where a concentration of social services would “contain” the city’s homeless far from its middle and upper class neighborhoods. Over the decades, the city has tried, off and on, to further confine its most hard-luck residents through police harassment and punitive legislation. But in recent years, as trendy boutiques and luxury high-rises have pressed in on a growing homeless population, the city has doubled down on these efforts. Rather than setting its sights on humane and time-honored solutions—most notably, supportive housing—it has unleashed upon Skid Row what a local community organization described as “the largest concentration of standing police forces in the country.”
The policies that have been keeping these forces busy are a tangle of old and new initiatives, some of which extend back decades, others of which are newer innovations. What unites them is a tendency to criminalize routine, often unavoidable, behavior by people forced to make their home on the streets: sleeping on the sidewalk, sleeping in a car, lining up for a meal at a soup kitchen. Over the years, activists and advocates have tried to challenge these measures, often in court, but the city’s overall criminalization policy has proven remarkably resilient.
Now, however, a coalition of community groups has come together to push statewide legislation that would enshrine the basic rights of homeless people in California law. If passed, the legislation will protect homeless Californians across the state—in San Francisco, San Diego, and the many points in between—but it will have particular resonance for the tens of thousands of Angelenos who sleep each night on the streets. In total, the LA region has a homeless population somewhere between 36,000 and 54,000 men and women, with a significant majority—as many as 76 percent—considered “unsheltered” by Department of Housing and Urban Development. State data compiled by HUD indicates that Los Angeles has the highest population of chronically homeless individuals (sometimes described as long-term street homeless) in the country.